Reef Safe Personal Care Products and Biodegradability

The oceans’ coral reefs, often called the “rainforests of the sea,” are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. However, they face many threats, including climate change, overfishing, and pollution. Among the pollutants are chemicals found in skincare products, such as chemical sunscreens. As awareness grows about the impact of these substances on marine life, the demand for reef-safe products and biodegradability is increasing. In this article, we go into the importance of reef-safe sunscreens and the importance of biodegradability in preserving our valuable marine environments.

Coral reefs support a quarter of ocean life, providing habitat, shelter, and sustenance for many species. However, corals are highly sensitive to environmental changes, including chemical pollutants. Certain ingredients commonly found in personal care products, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate in sunscreens, have been related to coral bleaching, DNA damage, and coral death. These chemicals can disrupt coral reproduction, impair growth, and make corals more susceptible to disease.

Recently, several of these chemicals have fallen out of favor with the FDA. Unfortunately, the full extent of the consequences of sunscreen ingredients being absorbed into the bloodstream remains largely unknown. Further investigation needs to be done to find out the actual safety of chemical sunscreens, particularly with prolonged use. Research indicates that numerous chemical sunscreen ingredients have the potential to be absorbed into the skin of humans, too, and potentially enter the bloodstream. Moreover, these ingredients pose risks to marine life, including fish, dolphins, whales, algae, and more, potentially causing mutations and reproductive issues.


How Testing Works

Testing reef-safe sunscreens includes various methods to check if they’re safe for coral reefs and marine life. First, scientists study the effects of sunscreen ingredients on cells from marine organisms in a lab setting. Then, they test these ingredients on living organisms in controlled environments to see how they affect growth, reproduction, and behavior. They also assess the impact of sunscreens on a wide range of marine life, including algae, fish, and crustaceans, by exposing them to different concentrations of sunscreen and observing their survival and behavior.

Diver over bleached and dying Acropora coral

To specifically assess the risk of coral bleaching, researchers expose coral fragments or colonies to sunscreens to see if they cause coral to lose their color or become unhealthy. They also study how sunscreen ingredients break down in water and if they build up in marine animals. Finally, regulators ensure that reef-safe sunscreens meet environmental standards before they can be sold. By using these methods, scientists can develop sunscreens that protect against sun damage while being safe for coral reefs and marine ecosystems.

Unfortunately, all of these test methods for marine toxicity require testing on actual organisms. This presents a dilemma for consumers who want products that haven’t been animal tested. Researchers are trying to develop new in vitro tests that can stand in for an actual in vivo test but there aren’t any available yet. One good indication may be how rapidly a product biodegrades.

Several places around the world have implemented bans or restrictions on the use of non-reef-safe sunscreens and certain sunscreen ingredients to protect coral reefs and marine ecosystems. For example, Hawaii was one of the first states to enact a legislation, banning the sale and distribution of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two chemicals known to harm coral reefs. Other places in the United States, such as Key West in Florida, have also implemented similar bans on these ingredients.

Great Barrier Reef

In addition to Hawaii and Key West, other regions and countries have taken steps to restrict or regulate sunscreen ingredients to protect marine environments. Palau, a Pacific island nation, implemented a ban on sunscreens containing oxybenzone, octinoxate, and other harmful chemicals in 2020. The Caribbean island of Bonaire has also banned the sale and use of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate to protect its coral reefs.

Furthermore, some marine protected areas and national parks, such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia, have regulations in place to encourage the use of reef-safe sunscreens. These regulations typically recommend or require the use of sunscreens that do not contain oxybenzone, octinoxate, or other harmful chemicals to minimize the impact on coral reefs and marine life.

Overall, the bans and regulations on non-reef-friendly sunscreens and ingredients are implemented in various regions globally to promote the conservation of coral reefs and marine ecosystems.



As awareness of these harmful effects grow, consumers are seeking out safer alternatives. Reef-safe products are formulated without the harmful chemicals mentioned above. Instead, they utilize mineral-based sunscreens like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which provide effective UV protection without posing a risk to coral reefs. Additionally, reef-safe products often feature biodegradable formulations that break down naturally without harming the environment.

Recycle global rubbish for the environment

Biodegradability is the ability of a substance to decompose naturally through microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, into harmless compounds. Regarding personal care products, biodegradability is very important for minimizing environmental impact, especially in ecosystems like oceans and rivers. Unlike non-biodegradable substances that remain in the environment for years, biodegradable ingredients break down into simpler components, reducing the risk of accumulation and pollution.

When consumers choose biodegradable products, they contribute to the health of aquatic ecosystems by reducing the invasion of harmful chemicals and pollutants. Also, biodegradability extends past personal care products to packaging materials, detergents, and household cleaners. By opting for biodegradable alternatives, individuals can lessen their ecological footprint and promote sustainable practices.


Are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide-based sunscreens a great solution?

Sadly, they have challenges in achieving high SPF levels compared to their chemical counterparts. This difficulty comes from issues related to the particle size of these minerals. Larger particles also cause a noticeable white cast on the skin, which worsens aesthetic appeal to consumers. This poses a problem between attaining a very high SPF and avoiding the characteristic whitening effect.

Nano zinc oxide, which is zinc oxide processed into very tiny particles, is used in many products like sunscreen and cosmetics. However, there are worries about itssafety. One concern is that because a nano zinc particle is so small, it might enter the skin more easily and cause irritation, especially for those with sensitive skin. Some studies suggest it might even enter the bloodstream, but scientists are not sure yet.

Another worry is its impact on the environment. When sunscreen with nano zinc oxide washes off into the ocean, the tiny particles can harm marine life like coral reefs and other sea creatures. They might affect the growth of corals and other marine organisms. While nano zinc oxide is good at protecting against the sun, there are concerns about its safety for people and its effects on the environment. Scientists are still studying to understand these concerns better.


Is there a solution? Yes!

Methods exist for upping the SPF in sunscreens using SPF boosters which enhance sunscreens’ ability to safeguard the skin from harmful UV radiation. These boosters are frequently integrated into sunscreen formulations to elevate the overall SPF rating, giving consumers heightened protection against both UVA and UVB rays. One prevalent category of SPF boosters is antioxidants.

Neutralizing free radicals made by UV exposure, antioxidants lessen potential skin damage and signs of aging. Through the addition of antioxidants or botanical extracts in sunscreen formulations, personal care manufacturers can bolster the sunscreen’s efficacy in combating oxidative stress made by UV radiation. This additional protection pairs with the primary UV-blocking agents in mineral sunscreens, strengthening its defensive capabilities.

Cultivated soybean furrow

While numerous SPF boosters are derived from petroleum-based chemicals, natural or biobased alternatives are scarce. Ferulic acid, sourced from plants, emerges as a notable photoprotectant in the skincare industry. Recognized for its potent antioxidant properties, ferulic acid effectively neutralizes free radicals and shields the skin from oxidative stress. Extracted from diverse plant sources like rice, corn, or others, ferulic acid has garnered considerable attention as a valuable ingredient in skincare formulations.

Unfortunately, formulating skincare products with ferulic acid can pose challenges due to its stability, solubility, and pH sensitivity. It must be carefully formulated. Also, ferulic acid has a tough time being soluble in water, making it difficult to include in water-based formulations. Special techniques are necessary to improve its solubility and ensure even distribution within the product.

Ferulic acid’s stability depends on the product’s pH, with it being most stable at acidic pH levels. This means skincare products with ferulic acid need to be formulated with the right pH to keep it stable while being gentle on the skin – a difficult task. Also, it’s important to consider how ferulic acid interacts with other skincare ingredients, as it can affect their stability and effectiveness. Testing for compatibility is crucial to ensure these interactions are addressed, and the formulation is optimized. Overall, creating skincare products with ferulic acid requires careful consideration of pH, ingredient interactions, and regulatory standards to make sure they’re both effective and safe for use.


Feruloyl glycerides addresses these issues

Feruloyl glycerides offer an innovative solution to the challenges associated with formulating skincare products containing ferulic acid. Developed by researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, feruloyl glycerides combine the beneficial properties of ferulic acid with the lipophilic characteristics of natural oils. Feruloyl glycerides are now being made available to formulators under the trade name “FeruliShield” by the Midwest Bioprocessing Center, a company focused on bringing sustainable technologies to market for human health, nutrition, and personal care.

By utilizing a natural enzymatic process to link ferulic acid with natural triglycerides like soybean oil or coconut oil, feruloyl glycerides provide an effective barrieragainst environmental damage. These modified oils are more lipophilic, facilitating their formulation into skincare and haircare products. They offer long-lasting SPF-boosting and antioxidant effects, enhancing the durability and efficacy of other active ingredients by protecting against photodegradation.

Incorporating feruloyl glycerides into sunscreens, cosmetics, anti-aging skincare, and haircare products not only improves their performance but also ensures the preservation of active ingredients and extends their shelf life. As all-natural lipid-based antioxidants, feruloyl glycerides products serve as an SPF booster while providing added protection against environmental stressors.

Feruloyl glycerides are also biodegradable. A new study conducted by researchers at the USDA (ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng. 2024, 12, 10, 3899–3908) compared the biodegradation rates of the typical sunscreen ingredients such as octinoxate (EHMC), homosalate (HMS), and avobenzone (AVO) with bioderived UV absorbers ferulic acid (FA), ethyl ferulate (ETF), feruloylated soybean oil (FSO), and feruloylated coconut oil (FCO) in different marine conditions. By monitoring CO2 production over time, researchers found that the bioderived absorbers broke down significantly faster (1 to 2 orders of magnitude) than chemical ones in all of the environments that were tested. Overall, the results suggest that bioderived boosters like feruloyl glycerides offer faster environmental degradation compared to conventional ones, addressing concerns about their persistence in the environment.

Looking at the feruloylated oils (or lipids) in particular, the process starts with the lipids breaking down into glycerol and fatty acids. Then, bacteria in the water eat up these components, turning them into simpler substances like CO2 and water. Ferulic acid, linked to these lipids, also breaks down into smaller molecules through bacterial processes. This means that these feruloylated lipids are likely better for the environment. This gives new hope for the evolution and potential of safer sunscreens. Though more research needs to be done, feruloylated oils show promise as reef-safe ingredients due to their faster biodegradation compared to conventional sunscreen chemicals.

This discovery offers hope for the development of safer sunscreens. By choosing reef-safe and biodegradable products, like those developed by Midwest Bioprocessing Center, consumers can contribute to the preservation of marine ecosystems for future generations. Sustainability lies at the heart of our commitment at Midwest Bioprocessing Center. We understand the interconnectedness of human health and the health of our planet, particularly our oceans and marine life.

By prioritizing the development and promotion of reef-safe personal care products and biodegradable formulations, we can all help to mitigate the harmful impact of conventional skincare on marine ecosystems. At MBC our efforts extend beyond product formulation—we continually seek innovative solutions, such as patented FeruliShield, that not only enhance product performance but also align with sustainable practices. Through research, collaboration, and consumer education, we strive to foster a culture of environmental stewardship, empowering individuals to make informed choices that safeguard our planet for future generations. Together, let’s make conscious choices to protect our oceans and ensure a sustainable future.





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